Trump factor stirs up Virginia gov race

Trump factor stirs up Virginia gov race

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms BuzzFeed stands by Cohen report: Mueller should 'make clear what he's disputing' MORE waded back into the Virginia governor’s race this week, highlighting the challenges he presents for both Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam.

Trump praised Gillespie on Twitter, saying that he'll be tough on crime and try to protect Confederate monuments. But while Trump's praise helps Gillespie shore up conservative voters who were lukewarm on him in the June primary, it also threatens the former Republican National Committee chairman’s standing with more moderate voters. 

The president also took aim at Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, accusing him of being weak on crime and skipping work. The Virginia Democrat has been careful not to make attacks on Trump a centerpiece of his campaign, particularly in the more rural parts of the state, but Trump’s involvement in the race also promises to energize Democratic voters eager to score a win against the president. 

Trump’s latest tweets come as Northam maintains a slight edge in the race less than two weeks before Election Day. While recent polls have shown the candidates in several drastically different positions, political observers say the race has been remained stable and will likely come to within a few points.

The gubernatorial race, the only competitive statewide race during Trump’s first year in office, has become a high priority for both parties. 

“Trump is a factor in the election, the question is to what extent he’ll be,” said Tom Davis, a former Virginia Republican congressman who serves as a government affairs director at Deloitte.

Davis added that Northam has made the president more of a factor in his campaign. 

Gillespie has kept Trump at arm’s length as he runs in a state where Trump’s underwater approval numbers mirror those nationally. Vice President Pence has campaigned in Virginia instead, while Gillespie only acknowledged Trump’s support for his campaign after he was directly asked about it. 

But Gillespie’s campaign has echoed Trump’s presidential bid, with a focus on criticizing illegal immigration and so-called sanctuary cities. Like Trump, Gillespie has positioned himself as a tough-on-crime candidate and a defender of Confederate statues.

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Gillespie’s latest campaign ad denounced Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) decision to restore voting rights for many felons, playing up the Virginia Republican’s endorsement from law enforcement groups. 

Trump and Gillespie have both sought to tie Northam to violence surrounding the MS-13 gang, prompting the Virginia Democrat to respond directly to the MS-13 accusations in a new ad launched Frida, in which he calls the attacks “despicable.” 

“[Gillespie’s] trying to straddle playing from the middle and playing to the base. And obviously that’s a challenge in most campaigns,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia.

“But given Trump’s unpopularity in Virginia, particularly the toxicity of the president in northern Virginia, it’s something Gillespie is trying to overcome. There’s some evidence he’s done fairly well at that.”

Northam was quick to push back on Trump’s Twitter attacks on his work ethic, touting his career as an Army physician and a pediatric neurologist.

“I served 8 years in the Army, took care of sick kids, and am running to build a more inclusive Virginia. Don't talk to me about showing up,” Northam tweeted.

Northam has sought to tie Gillespie to Trump. At recent rally in Richmond alongside former President Obama, Northam said that the Virginia Republican is “cut from the same mold” as the president.

“The more Northam can connect Gillespie to Trump, that’s better for him,” Skelley said. “All things equal, the Northam campaign would probably be happy for Trump to be tweeting about Gillespie.”

When Trump first tweeted about the race in early October, Northam fundraised off of the president’s attacks of him and raised six-figures within 24 hours. But Northam’s criticism of Trump has been deliberate and targeted in more progressive pockets of the state, since leaning too heavily into Trump could also alienate some voters.

Both campaigns are testing different messaging in different parts of the Commonwealth. The Virginia Public Access Project tracked ads running Oct. 17-23 in four media markets — Norfolk, Richmond, Roanoke and northern Virginia — to see where Northam and Gillespie were running 15 different ads.

Gillespie’s campaign aired an ad about China stealing jobs only in the Roanoke media market. Roanoke County, the southwest part of the state that is considered coal country, swung big for Trump in the 2016 election, which he won by nearly 28 points. Gillespie also ran an ad about protecting Confederate monuments in the Richmond, Norfolk and Roanoke media markets, but left it out in northern Virginia.

But he’s notably left out Trump in all ads. “He hasn’t mentioned Trump in a single ad, which is telling,” Skelley said. 

Northam ran ads on economic and veterans issues in Hampton Roads and Roanoke. But his messaging looked vastly different in northern Virginia, an area that went big for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms Special counsel issues rare statement disputing explosive Cohen report MORE last November. His "women’s right to choose" ad only ran in that media market and Northam’s spot on standing up to Trump has run there more than anywhere else in the state.

“That’s pretty clear the Northam campaign knows that Trump is key in a lot of ways to getting turnout,” Skelley said.

The biggest question as Election Day nears is whether Trump will campaign in Virginia. Trump hasn’t indicated if he’ll stump for Gillespie. But some political observers say they wouldn’t be surprised if he came down to Virginia at the last minute, if Republicans feel they need a final get-out-the-vote push.

“I’m really interested to see if Donald Trump shows up in Bristol [or elsewhere] on the Saturday or Sunday before the election,” Skelley said. “That would be an obvious play to juice the base up and wouldn’t necessarily give Democrats enough time to use clips of Gillespie standing by Trump in ads.”